In early June, I traveled to Cuba to learn alongside the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) cohort of Central Seminary and Cuban pastoras from the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba (FIBAC, or as seminary president, Molly T. Marshall affectionately called them the Sorority of Baptist Leaders in Cuba).
While preparing for my trip, the most common response I encountered when people heard that I was going to Cuba with my seminary was, “Oooooh, YOU’RE GOING ON A MISSION TRIP?!”
And that’s where I cringed.
Mission trip. When thinking about trips outside the United States, or areas that are perceived to be impoverished or lacking in resources, many people assume that the purpose of the trip is to save someone in need of our resources.
My background in the evangelical church certainly supported this idea of mission trips. A mission trip was usually about churches rich in material resources planning some kind of “backyard Bible club” in poor neighborhoods or working to “save” the underprivileged kids. There was usually candy involved. And puppets—always puppets.
If anyone was to be saved on this trip to Cuba, though, perhaps we were the ones who still needed to be saved from the stronghold of the American Savior complex.
As the Cuban pastoras joined us in Havana for a time of retreat and renewal, everyone introduced themselves and told us where they pastor. With the help of some gifted translators, we were able to share stories and get to know one another.
There was, however, sometimes a pause in communication as we waited for interpretation. It was what happened in those moments of pause that taught me to lean in and to listen as closely to people’s eyes and body language as I listen to their words.
In the midst of one introduction from a Cuban pastora, I was struck by a familiar set of words. “Betania,” and “Perico” stood out among a string of Spanish that I was struggling to understand.
Every Sunday, my home church, Oakhurst Baptist, remembers our Cuban partner church in prayer. Through this weekly remembrance, the words “we pray for the Betania Baptist Church in Perico,” have become as familiar and dear to me as the words of a beloved hymn tune.
During the next break between sessions, I made my way to the two pastoras who said they were from Perico. In my excited, broken Spanish, I looked at them and exclaimed, “Soy. . .de. . .Oakhurst!” Their startled faces immediately transformed into knowing smiles as Pastora Olga declared, “Ah, Oakhurst! Mi hermana!”
We quickly enlisted the help of a nearby interpreter and caught each other up on the happenings of our two sister churches. I told them that Oakhurst prays for them every Sunday and that I was so excited to finally meet them in person. They told me that they pray for Oakhurst every Sunday, and they sent all of their love For the next few days, the Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Cuban pastoras from FIBAC continued to forge a sisterhood through discussions about self-care, spirituality, ministry as practice, and partnerships.
We shared delicious meals. We laughed. We cried together. We sang. We danced. We became sisters.
The truth is that I was the one saved on this trip. I was saved from the tyranny of the singular story that so often dominates our American worldview—the story that begins with American excess and ends with American guilt. In the story of this trip we were all, at some point, learning from one another. We were collaborators. We were partners.
If anyone else was saved on this trip, perhaps they were, like me, saved from the pain of isolation in ministry, from the fear of voicing self-care needs, or from barriers that keep women from practicing their ministry.
I have better language now for what this trip was. I did not go to Cuba on a mission trip. I had the privilege and pleasure of going to Cuba on a Sister Trip.
Donors to the Women’s Leadership Initiative made this trip possible for the WLI cohort and staff of Central Seminary. A grant through the Alliance of Baptists from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation made this trip possible for the Cuban FIBAC pastoras. We were all there because of the generosity of others. And isn’t life that way most of the time?
Ashley Robinson is a third-year MDiv student at Central Seminary, Shawnee, Kansas, in the Women’s Leadership Initiative. She lives in Atlanta, GA, and is a member of Oakhurst Baptist Church. She works with a local nonprofit that serves LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.